MESA, Ariz. — Simone Manuel was 11 years old, right around that time when kids start to take particular notice of the world around them, when something she noticed led her to her mother with a question: Mommy, little Simone asked in the kitchen of their Sugar Land, Tex. home, why aren’t there other kids who look like me at these swim meets?
Sharron Manuel didn’t have the answer off the top of her head, so together mother and daughter took to the Internet in search of it. They printed out pages upon pages of articles and book excerpts, and read through them together.
“I think it was really helpful for her because it enlightened her that the reason a lot of blacks haven’t been involved in swimming was that in the past we didn’t have access to facilities,” Sharron Manuel said. “It wasn’t something where we didn’t have the physical ability to do it. It was access and exposure. It was a history lesson for me as well, because I didn’t know either.”
If many years from now the ranks of African American swimmers — both at the elite and grass-root levels of the sport — have ballooned and thrived, folks may look back to a day in March 2015 as a turning point, and to Simone Manuel as a pioneer.
On that particular day, at the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championship, Manuel, her Stanford teammate Lia Neal and Natalie Hinds of the University of Florida finished 1-2-3 in the women’s 100-yard freestyle, respectively, marking the first time in NCAA history three African American swimmers swept the medals in a championship event.
At the time, history never crossed Manuel’s mind. As she stood on the podium, she thought of the two young women flanking her as her friends and competitors — not necessarily fellow history makers. In those first moments, her mind turned not to their shared race, but her next swimming race, a relay.
But then came the texts and tweets, with their references to history being made, followed by the news headlines and interview requests. “That,” Manuel said, “is when I realized the impact it had on a lot of people.”
If you ask Cullen Jones where he ranks the women’s medal sweep, on a scale from Swimming’s Jackie Robinson Moment to No Big Deal At All, he doesn’t hesitate:
“It’s definitely a Jackie Robinson Moment for swimming,” said Jones, who at the 2008 Beijing Games became the second African American swimmer to win a gold medal. “This was groundbreaking. This was history. Three African American women on the podium? It was amazing. I had goosebumps. Friends were texting me saying they had tears in their eyes.”
Manuel, an 18-year-old just finishing her freshman year at Stanford, thinks back to that Internet search for answers with her mother some seven years before as a personal turning point.
“It was kind of inspiring, because I knew how far [I] had to go to reach my goals and dreams,” she said during last week’s Mesa Arena Pro Swim Series meet. “I like challenges.”
“It just added that extra motivation for her,” Sharron Manuel said. “It taught her, ‘There’s no reason why I can’t do this. I can do this.’ It helped her stick with it.”
It doesn’t take long to summarize the history of top-level African American swimmers. There was Fred Evans, who was a three-time NCAA Division II national champion breaststroker in the 1970s. There was Chris Silva, the first African American swimmer to make the U.S. national team in 1982, and Sabir Muhammad, who broke 10 American records in the late 1990s and early 2000s. There was Anthony Ervin, the first African American to win Olympic gold, in the 50 free at Sydney in 2000, and Maritza Correia, a Puerto Rican of African descent, who became the first to set a world record. And there is Jones.
“You’re starting to see the change now,” Jones, 31, said. “I remember when it was just Maritza and Sabir and me, we always talked about it. We wanted to see more kids coming up, and now we’re seeing it. It’s awesome. It’s been slow, but it’s coming. As our generation bows out, we know the future is in good hands.”
It was eight years ago, after realizing the presence of a handful of high-profile black swimmers wasn’t making a difference in the overall numbers, USA Swimming decided to make it a priority to recruit African Americans to the sport.
“Not unlike golf, the challenge in swimming was access,” said Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming’s executive director. “It wasn’t something we were going to do overnight. This was going to be a generational, 30-year mission. . . . We’ve done a lot of pilot programs and initiatives. Some have failed, some have succeeded.”
Of the NCAA medal sweep last month, Wielgus said: “This is a significant moment, but what I’m especially pleased about is that it’s a moment that has come on the shoulders of time. I think what you’re seeing with [Manuel, Neal and Hinds] is a progression. And I think you’re going to see more of it. It’s like this growing wave.”
The Stanford women have already seen circumstantial evidence of the way their achievement has resonated with other African Americans. At a recent practice, a woman showed up with her young daughter, just to meet Manuel and Neal and to show the child what she could aspire to.
“The mom wanted her daughter to see African American girls swimming and doing special stuff in the sport, just to show her daughter this is what she can do as well,” Neal said. “I feel a lot of other kids out there really looked up to us in that way. It’s really humbling to be able to have the effect on people’s lives.”
It isn’t easy to absorb the label of “trailblazer” when you’re 18 years old and just trying to establish yourself at the highest level of your sport. Manuel, a sprinter, is the American record holder in the 100-yard freestyle, but is focusing on long-course training — in meters — in preparation for this summer’s world championships and next summer’s U.S. Olympic Trials. On the starting blocks, she isn’t looking to change the sport — just dominate it.
“If that’s the title people want to give me — trailblazer — I’ll take it,” she said. “I’m just trying to swim and do the best I can. Who I am is who I am.”